What a difference two weeks make

October 29, 2006

from July 2001 

Rebels Attack 2 Crucial Airports in Sri Lanka Riot Anniversary.”  That’s how the New York Times reported it.  I was dumbstruck as I read on.  The international airport just outside of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, was attacked early Tuesday morning by members of the LTTE separatist group.  I had just been through that same airport twice less than two weeks ago on a short side-trip from southern India.  I was startled upon arrival, as were bussed across the tarmac from our plane to the terminal, when I saw a young soldier, large automatic rifle slung across his front as he stood by his sentry post and watched us pass.  He seemed pleased as our eyes met after mine had widened at the sight of the gun.  A few days later, more accustomed to the police and military presence everywhere, the only thought I had as I crossed the same stretch of tarman to my flight was “Poor guy.  What a job, standing out there for hours on end under the hot sun, in a wool beret, no less.”

But what echoed in my ears as I read this morning’s news were the words of one of the two men who drove me to Bandaranaike International Airport in the middle of a hot, humid Wednesday.   At each checkpoint on the road leading up to the airport, a young soldier in blue and navy fatigues peered into our minivan, and viewed the driver and his partner’s identification cards, while another soldier checked under the body of the vehicle, and several others stood around, surveying us.   I commented to Ganesh, the grey-eyed, thirtysomething
man  seated in the front passenger seat, about the number of times we had to stop on this road.   He scoffed, shaking his head, and said, “If Prabhakaran wanted to hit this airport, he could.”    (Veluppillai Prabhakaran heads the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.)

How right he was.  

According to news reports, somewhere between 14 and 20 members of the LTTE attacked a Sri Lankan Air force base and the adjoining international airport in the inky darkness of 3 a.m.  In addition to blowing up several military planes, the group also attacked several commercial aircraft belonging to Sri Lankan Airlines’ fleet, and the losses to the company are estimated at $350 million.  

On TV, I saw all that remained of one Airbus: a black hull tenuously attached to the still-white tail section, emblazoned with the red, green and orange logo, a fluid figure I had mistaken for a chili pepper or tamarind pod.   I later discovered it is intended to be a modern spin on the previous logo, a peacock.  The larger, center swath of red is the bird’s body, and the smaller splashes, green on one side, orange on the other, are supposed to be the wings.   I seemed to recall reading about the national carrier having some accidents over the last few years, one of which was suspected to have been caused by an LTTE bomb, so I thought my odds might be slightly better on the harried and overworked Indian Airlines.

I was only in Sri Lanka for a few days and consciously avoided being the first to bring up the subject of the ongoing Tamil-Sinhalese war, purposely hanging back to see if and when others would discuss it.

My hostess, part of an affluent and influential Tamil family, spoke about the situation my first night in Colombo.  As we ate dinner by kerosene lanterns, waiting for the evening’s power cut to end, she told me that the land on the Jaffna peninsula in the north is very poor quality, so the Tamils, the majority population
who live there, have always had to work twice as hard just to get by.   “But in the south,” my elegant, sixtieish dinner companion continued, “you could eat a mango, throw the seed over your shoulder, and two years later a mango tree would pop up; the land’s so fertile here.”

On the forty-five minute drive from the city to the airport , Ganesh, originally from Jaffna, told what it was like for him, as a Tamil, to live in Colombo.  He came to the capital to look for work, as the war had killed off most job prospects up north.   Now he had a business as a contractor, doing various house repairs, and he also had a travel business, taking tourists with this driver and minivan sightseeing around the island nation.   Tourists from Europe and Australia, scared off for several years by the war and its fall-out around the
country, were just starting to come back this year.

Ganesh complained of being stopped and harassed by police, like many other Tamils, he said.  “If you ask me where I am from, I will tell you I am Sri Lankan.   But they,” he continued, motioning outside the window, to indicate the Sinhalese majority who  live in the south and west of the country, “want me to say that I am Sri
Lankan Tamil, just like they will say they are Sri Lankan Sinhalese.”

“Look at this,” he said as he handed me his weathered i.d. card, the plastic laminate curling off the edges.  I looked at his picture and the text, scanning the curves and curlicues of Sinhalese script.   “Do you see my name there?” he asked.

“This is only in Sinhalese,” he explained, taking the card back. “No Tamil, no English, the way everything is supposed to be.”   As he said this, I recalled the street signs in Colombo, how they had indeed contained all three languages.

“That’s all we want: to be equal.”   He continued, gesturing with his hands for emphasis, his voice raising slightly, “I don’t want a separate Eelam.  I want one Sri Lanka.   But I want us to be equal.”

Ganesh told me a story I had heard several times already during my short stay in Colombo, about an incident that happened just a few days back, where a young Tamil woman and her husband were stopped late at night at a checkpoint in the city.   The husband was ordered by the police to go get tea for them.  While he was gone, his wife was raped by the six policemen there.

We were almost at the airport, on the two-mile long road punctuated by three army checkpoints.   As Ganesh handed his i.d. card to the first young, serious soldier who stopped us,  I couldn’t help but notice as he examined the card and its owner, how his features shifted and stiffened, just slightly, but enough to notice.  He gestured toward me and Ganesh explained I was headed for an international flight.  I looked out at the blue figures circling our van, all with steely expressions.   As much as I was struck by the physical beauty of the country – red soil, lush greenery and flowers everywhere, colorful statues of Buddha, Hindu gods and Christian saints lining the roadsides – the ride to the airport, coupled with a stop at a police checkpoint the night before, made me glad to be heading back to India.

More than two hours early for my flight, I anticipated even heavier airport security checks than when I left Madras for Colombo (three luggage inspections and one pat-down by a female guard), but I was wrong.   After one x-ray scan, I checked in and my bags were gone.  Later, when the flight was called for boarding, I walked through the metal detector and it beeped, prompting a young woman in a security uniform to step toward me.

“Oh, ” I said, holding out my right hand to show her a heavy silver bangle on my wrist,”it must be either this or the coins in my pocket.”

I expected to be asked to remove both coins and bangle to walk through the detector again, but she just said “Oh, ok” and smiled, waving me on.   “Great security,” I muttered to myself, as I headed out to get the bus to the plane.  A full bus had just departed, and an airport official came over and told myself and the other passengers who had gathered “The plane is right over there.   You can walk to it if you don’t want to wait for the next bus.”  And off we plodded across the tarmac in the July afternoon sun.   “Is this wise?” I wondered, musing on the safety of allowing passengers to wander around airplane docking areas like we were.  “Probably not, ” I concluded, as I glanced at that lone soldier standing by his sentry post and climbed the stairway to my Indian Airlines Airbus.